As parents, we always hope our children don‘t repeat our mistakes or live through our tragedies. But no matter how much wishful thinking we push towards this goal, it seems unobtainable—or at least it has been for the last three generations.

We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of 9-11. September 11 is *MY* “I hope you never have to live through this moment” for my daughter. My mother spent a great deal of her life telling me she hoped I’d never have to live through an “11-22” moment—aka: The assassination of JFK. And my mom’s parents constantly told her that they wished beyond belief that she never had to endure a “12-7 moment – which was the original date of infamy for the last few generations: the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

My great-grandparents probably wished their children never had to endure a “Great Depression” moment, and then prior to that (depending on how far back your American lineage goes) there were probably similar wishes of hoping the next generation didn’t have a Civil War or Revolutionary War experience. These are moments that didn’t just change your way of thinking but changed the entire world (usually not for the better) and you will never forget where you were when that moment unfolded.

My mom’s story 

I asked my mom to share her thoughts about where she was when Kennedy was killed and what that had meant to her, as a way to compare my own experiences with 9-11. The following are my mom’s words:

The touchstone for my generation begins November 22nd, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Television and radio meant that the world heard about this event in real time and the effect was enormous. I was 15 years old and living in Australia, where my dad worked in the American Embassy. 

Friday, November 22nd, 1963 at 12:30 Dallas time was 3:30 am on a Saturday in Australia. My dad was notified sometime very early that morning and I remember him waking me up to tell me the sad news, which seemed unbelievable. By mid-morning, Australian tv and radio were carrying no other coverage. Most regular programming was cancelled and most of the nation stayed glued to the coverage, just as in the U.S.  

Australian T.V. at that time was limited to about 12 hours of programming which usually ended before midnight, but there was 24/7 coverage for the first time anyone could remember.

JFK, his young family, and the whole ‘Camelot’ aura was very appealing to Australians and he was enormously popular there so – even in Australia – most people still remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

The phone rang off the hook with friends sending condolences, as if we had lost a family member. My mother said she managed to hold it together until one of my school friends came by that afternoon with a nosegay of roses and tears streaming down her face.

We were numb as we watched events unfold in real time – from the swearing-in of LBJ, to landing back in DC, through the apprehension of Oswald, his assassination by Jack Ruby, and then the funeral.

The sense of loss and of lack of control was only reinforced over the divisions of the war in Vietnam and solidified by the assassinations of Martin Luther King 4-04-68 and Robert F Kennedy on 6-05-1968. 

We seemed to be living in a dangerous place with an uncertain future, and I spent a long time questioning whether the world was a place that I wanted to introduce new life. And when I did bring my children into the world, it was with the undying hope they never had a ‘JFK assassination moment’ in their lifetime. “

My Story

For 25 years of my life, I had been spared that. Granted, my generation had our moments. Reagan was almost assassinated in my lifetime, but I was young, and he lived, so it is a vague memory at best. I couldn’t tell you where I was at the time—I was doing whatever clueless six-year-olds do. Probably eating sand while wearing a tutu.

The first big trauma that resonated with me was when I was in fifth grade. It was the Challenger explosion, but that was a little more personal for my world than it was to most. I was in school when it happened, and I can remember watching it, live on television, because we had indoor recess that day. 

More importantly, we were all gathered around the tv, watching because my previous year fourth-grade teacher had been the runner-up to Christa McAuliffe to be the teacher-in-space.

I remember watching it happen live – explosion and all – until our recess monitor turned the tv off. I remember watching the “very special Punky Brewster” episode that addressed it a few days later. 

But as tragic as the Challenger explosion was, it wasn’t necessarily globally impactful, war-starting, or full of political ramifications that changed the world, the way the other events have been.

Where I was, what I was doing, on 9-11. That’s a whole different thing.

The Recent, Real World

At the time 9-11 happened, I worked at AOL. At 8:45 I was driving to work, listening to – of all things – Howard Stern. I’ll never forget this part. Prior to 9-11, there had been an investigation into the alcohol levels of pilots. It was clearly one of those “there’s no good news stories right now, so we’re going to make stuff up and talk about pilots who are flying planes drunk.” So, when the first plane hit, and no one realized it was a commercial jet that didn’t just “graze the antennas of the top of the building,” Howard and Robin were riffing on the drunk driving of pilots and chalking this all up to stupidity. 

Then the second plane hit. And shit got serious.

I sat in my car, in the parking lot of AOL, switching back and forth between WTOP (the local radio station), Howard Stern to hear what was going on in NY, and NPR because they were serious reporters—unlike most of the other morning radio shows. 

I just wanted to make sense of what was happening. I finally decided to venture into the office, only to find it a surreal situation where every television was tuned into CNN and there were rumors running rampant. 

Shortly after I walked in, the Pentagon was hit, and they sent everyone in my company home. Driving home, I was petrified that we were about to be nuked. But there was literally nothing-NOTHING-in the sky, which was almost just as bad, given I was two minutes away from Dulles International Airport, so not seeing any planes in the sky was horribly creepy.

9-11 happened three months after I got married and 13 days before my birthday. That year my husband had intended to surprise me with birthday tickets to see Jane’s Addiction (my teenage favorite band who I’d never seen play live) a week later. 

I remember being at that concert, ignoring the band and spending the entire night looking at the sky, waiting for the plane to crash into us or drop a bomb. I mean, here we were, a huge crowd, full of everything that the extremists/terrorists hated.

This constant state of anxiety was how I lived for months. Because in addition to that tragic day, the DC area dealt with some serious shit post 9-11. 

We had the beltway sniper, where we all did THE dance—jumping from left to right just to get gas or walk from our car to our front door. And we had a slew of politicians who were receiving Anthrax in the mail, and a number of postal workers who were dying from poisonous letters. It was… a difficult time.

My husband is a few years older than me, so when we got married, we’d intended to start a family fairly soon, so he wouldn’t be that 60-year-old father at high school graduation. But 9-11 and the aftermath really messed with me and I completely abandoned the idea of having kids. I saw literally no reason to bring a child into such a messed-up world.

The silver lining playbook

But just like the phoenix rising from the ashes, even the most tragic events can deliver something positive.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor helped bring my grandparent’s generation into a war where we were needed. While I have mixed feelings about dropping nuclear bombs, our involvement was instrumental to stop the horrifying actions of Hitler, Stalin, and helping establish a fairer and freer world.  

My mom’s generation was horrified by the assassinations of political and social leaders, but it led to a whole new generation who seriously embraced the idea of “Think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” 

It activated a sense that an entire generation could create change through activism and service to others (Peace Corps, Vista, ACLU, voting rights, racial equality) and to question and protest things that they disagreed with.

My own revelation after my traumatic experience was more subtle, and way more personal. Between 9-11, the snipers, and the Anthrax, I was scared to step foot outside for a good three months. And, as noted, I definitely didn’t want to bring a new generation into a world that sucked this bad.

Having said that, we had two friends who’d just had a baby. I’d picked up a couple books in this new series that I’d heard was amazing, to give them as a “for when your kid is older” baby gift. 

This series sat on my desk for a few weeks, because God-forbid, I wasn’t leaving the house to actually drop them off. I eventually picked the first one up and decided to give it a read (if it was obvious I’d read it, I’d buy them a new one). And thus, entered into my world, the amazing accounts of Harry Potter.

The Harry Potter franchise had four books as of 2001. I read every single one between the end of Sept and the beginning of November. And it was literally the saving grace of my life. Post 9-11, I bought every single book the night it was published and had finished it within days. It provided me the perfect combination of renewing my hope in humanity, while providing escapism that let me get outside my head and not dwell on only the negative.

As much as moms and daughters knock heads, my kid and I will always be bonded by our love of this series—and I will never forget how it saved me from desolation and a childless existence post 9-11.

I’m not the only one to find positivity out of 9-11. One of my best married-couple friends ended up being forced to spend that weekend together after what was supposed to be a basic “first date” because she flew up to see him and ended up being stranded when the airports shut down, so she had to spend a few weeks living with him. They are still one of the strongest, best couples I know.

No matter how many positives I can count from that tragic day, I can’t help but reiterate the wishes of my mother, and her mother before her. I truly, truly hope my daughter never has to face a 9-11, 11-22. 12-07, or anything worse.

But the odds are against us. So, if she does, I hope she, her generation, and the generations that follow, are able to find and exploit the positives from tragedies like this, and it serves to make them stronger and better.

To all the firefighters, police, journalists, airplane passengers, Windows on the World restaurant staff, and everyday people who worked, rescued, or sadly perished due to the tragic events of 9/11, you have my respect and love. I will never forget, and I hope the lessons we learned will reverberate for generations to come.

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About Lily Winters

A full-time copywriter, Lilly Winters lives outside Washington, D.C. in a house full of animals—which include her husband and teenager. Under a different name, she’s written a book of short stories, a Young Adult novel, and was most recently published in Gravity Dancers. Lilly Winters isn’t posting her real picture because it’s possible she is currently wanted by the Mexican drug cartel. It’s also possible she watches too much Ozark.

View all posts by Lily Winters